Preachers have a notoriously hard time listening to each other preach. I guess it’s only human nature. Mechanics will assess the work of other mechanics, a hairstylist will probably always have something to say about your haircut, a musician will usually notice a mistake that an untrained ear would miss, and pastors critique each others’ sermons.
In these summer months when most preachers find themselves taking a break from the pulpit for one reason or another, how can a preacher listen well? Two years ago I transitioned from being the lead pastor of a growing church to a ministry role at Houghton College. I went from preaching 46 weekends per year on average (plus special services, funerals, weddings, etc.) to a role at Houghton where I have over 55 opportunities every year to preach, teach, or lead worship at various events, but only find myself on a church platform to preach or lead worship around 30 weekends per year. As a result, I have to take a seat about 22 weekends per year. Here are four habits that have been vital for me, and maybe will help you take a seat this summer:
Come as a student, not a teacher
Students don’t use red pens. Teachers use red pens to grade their students’ work, but when you hear a sermon you are not there to give a grade: you are there to learn and grow.
I don’t think I’ve seen two pastors yet in my travels who preach the same way. Note-taking, manuscript preaching, note-less preaching, object lessons, putting images on a screen, or not – I’ve seen it all and then some. The mode of delivery can be a distraction especially for us pastors who preach all the time.
You can always learn something, though, in any sermon. Sometimes the learning comes easy. Sometimes I have to be very creative in my ability to learn, but you can always learn something. Maybe it’s a song you didn’t know before. Maybe it’s a theological, historical, or biblical point you didn’t know before (or had forgotten). Maybe it’s something about their delivery that you’ve never tried before. Maybe it didn’t even work for them, but you can try to utilize it in a more constructive way. You may not like the sermon. You may not want to hear it a second time. But you can probably still learn something, and if you go into it the service looking to learn something God will rarely let you come up empty.
When you are a preacher on vacation this summer, put away your red pen. Be a student, not a sermon critic.
Be an example of how to listen to a sermon
As a preacher, especially someone who serves as a guest speaker in a variety of settings, it is really helpful and encouraging to find a smiling, friendly face in the congregation. It is a gift to find someone who makes eye contact and stays engaged. Every once in a while I even find someone who laughs at my jokes.
When you take a seat, be aware of how you look from the pulpit. Do you appear engaged or indifferent? Are you expressing a warm demeanor, or detached? Are you just waiting for this to be over, or are you fully present? Actually, whether or not that sort of stuff helps other preachers the way it helps me, I know acting that way makes a big difference in my heart when it’s my turn to take a seat.
Think about how you’ll use your phone, too. Your phone is a gateway to a million distractions. Maybe you’re better off leaving your phone in your pocket.
When you get Sundays off this summer, do unto the preachers as you would have others do unto you when it’s your turn to preach.
Enjoy the weekend
I went 12 years without a weekend off. 12 years without a true, non–vacation, run-of-the-mill weekend off. I think lay people don’t realize how much of a sacrifice it is for pastors and their families to give up our weekends. I remember how strange it felt when I finally got my first true weekend off in 12 years. I remember saying to someone, “You mean this happens every week?” It made me realize that, while I faithfully took a day off in the pastorate, a day off is no match for a weekend.
A Sunday when you don’t have to preach might be the closest thing you get to a weekend off all year long. Guard your calendar. Stay up late on Saturday night. Make special plans. Seize the day.
When you get a Sunday off, make a weekend out of it.
Put An Arm Around Your Loved Ones
I will never forget the Sunday three summers ago I woke up to go to church. It was the first time in my adult life when I was not a church’s pastor on a Sunday morning. I was still an ordained pastor, still doing pastoral work, but no longer responsible for one specific congregation in the same way. I was usually to the church before my children were even awake on Sunday mornings, so going to church with my family was a foreign idea.
And I loved it. My favorite part? I got to sit with my family in church.
There are many Sundays when I am jealous of my friends who are pastors who get to perform baptisms, or preach to their own congregation, or lead communion. There are certain Sundays of the year when I really wish I had a church to whom I could preach. I console myself those mornings by putting my arm around my wife or one of my children during the sermon. It’s a simple pleasure that simply makes a big difference in my life.
Whatever else you do when you take some time off this summer, make sure you put your arm around someone you love.
Why It Matters
Like other professions, it is no secret preachers are opinionated about their craft. But unlike other professions, it is vital to your soul that you can hear the voice of God through other pastors. You have blind spots, I have blind spots, and it is not just for the sake of time off or as a professional courtesy that pastors must learn to take a seat. In the struggle for the preacher’s soul, this is an often overlooked battlefield.